Commentary

Upstart teams riding young guns

Commitment to QBs paying off for surprising Minnesota, Miami, Indy, St. Louis

Originally Published: October 12, 2012
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

When the season started, most prognosticators pegged Minnesota, Miami, Indianapolis and St. Louis for last place.

Football's most surprising teams share something other than early-season success. Young quarterbacks are leading them.

From Minnesota to Miami, from Indianapolis to St. Louis, the quarterbacks the franchises invested in and are counting on have produced.

Christian Ponder, in his second season, has outplayed all other quarterbacks in the NFC North this season, an idea once as unthinkable as the Vikings' 4-1 record. Ponder's 70.6 Total QBR is higher than Aaron Rodgers' 59.8, Matthew Stafford's 59.1 and Jay Cutler's 52.8. Ponder that.

In Miami, Ryan Tannehill is making Dolphins fans forget that the franchise has gone through 16 other starting quarterbacks since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. Tannehill finally has given Miami a reason to believe. He threw for 431 yards at Arizona, a record for a rookie quarterback playing on the road, before leading an upset over the Cincinnati Bengals the next week. Tannehill's Dolphins are some Dan Carpenter missed field goals away from being tied for first place with the Patriots in the AFC East.

Andrew Luck has been so good so quickly that it validates what one Colts official said on the eve of the season, when he predicted that Indianapolis' No. 1 overall pick already was among the top five quarterbacks in football. Luck's 77.6 Total QBR is even higher than Tom Brady's 77.5. "He's been amazing," Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney said about Luck. "I don't know if he knows how good he has been."

And St. Louis' Sam Bradford, in his third season, has shown why the Rams traded away the right to draft Robert Griffin III, playing with less talent than the aforementioned quarterbacks yet leading his team into contention in the NFC West.

What these quarterbacks have proven, again, is that incubation periods for successful signal-callers no longer matter. A quarterback can, and often does, succeed from his rookie season on. There's no reason he cannot make an immediate impact. Teams with no hope this season can start imaging what West Virginia's Geno Smith can do for them next season.

The season's first five weeks also show that, if a team has the right quarterback, it has a chance, something few thought of Minnesota, Miami, Indianapolis and St. Louis last summer.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesThe Texans have stayed strong despite the offseason loss of players such as Mario Williams, who shuffled off the Buffalo.

1. Newest farm system: Without NFL Europe, the closest thing the NFL now has to a farm team is the Houston Texans. On the way to joining the Atlanta Falcons as one of the last two undefeated teams in the league, Houston has stocked its roster as well as those of other teams. This past offseason, Houston lost pass-rusher Mario Williams to Buffalo, linebacker DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia, wide receiver Jacoby Jones to Baltimore, offensive tackle Eric Winston to Kansas City, guard Mike Brisiel to Oakland, tight end Joel Dreessen to Denver and cornerback Jason Allen to Cincinnati.

When final cutdowns were made last month, Houston waived three players who wound up being claimed for 53-man rosters in other cities: offensive linemen Nate Menkin in Philadelphia, Shelley Smith in St. Louis and Cody Wallace in Tampa Bay. Additionally, running back Jonathan Grimes was signed by the New York Jets off the Texans' practice squad. And two more players let go by the Texans were picked up this week, receiver Trindon Holliday by Denver and guard Thomas Austin by Carolina.

In recent offseasons, Houston lost cornerback Dunta Robinson to Atlanta, safety Bernard Pollard to Baltimore, fullback Vonta Leach to Baltimore, defensive end Jason Babin to Seattle (and eventually Philadelphia), running back Chris Ogbonnaya to Cleveland, linebacker Zac Diles to Tennessee and defensive tackle Amobi Okoye to Chicago.

Houston has lost in the offseason, yet it hasn't lost this regular season. It is a credit to Texans general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak. As good as many of those former Texans are, none has been missed terribly in Houston. Now the Texans must see if they can be just as successful at replacing their defensive leader, Brian Cushing, who tore his ACL Monday night. It will not be easy. But if one team has proven capable of doing it, it's Houston.

2. Wayne's world: Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne deserved plenty of props for his 13-catch, 212-yard performance to help beat Green Bay, Chuckstrong style. But he deserves even more applause for returning to Indianapolis one season after the Colts finished 2-14 and Wayne had at least one better offer elsewhere. The one team that made a significant push to sign Wayne last offseason was the New England Patriots, according to league sources. The Patriots offered Wayne more money than the Colts, yet the veteran wide receiver felt a certain sense of loyalty to Indianapolis, something not always evident in sports today. Wayne wound up passing up the Patriots' offer, accepting a slightly less lucrative deal with the Colts and returning to Indianapolis to help usher in the new era of football.

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Kim Klement/US PresswireGerald McCoy has more sacks and tackles this season than Ndamukong Suh, who was selected by the Lions a spot before the Bucs picked McCoy in the 2010 draft.

3. The real McCoy: Before the 2010 draft, scouts debated whether Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy was the better defensive tackle prospect. In the first two seasons after the Lions drafted Suh with the second overall pick and the Buccaneers grabbed McCoy with the third overall pick, it looked like Detroit made the right call. But this season, there has been a shift. NFL scouts believe McCoy is outplaying Suh, which might not be saying much these days. Suh has no more than two tackles in eight straight games dating back to last Thanksgiving, the game in which he notoriously stomped Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. Suh ranks 11th on the Lions with seven tackles whereas McCoy has more tackles, more sacks, more action and more support from NFL scouts. There's still plenty of season left, but for the time being, McCoy has morphed into the force that scouts thought Suh was destined to be.

4. Right behind Brees: As celebrated as Drew Brees' record-setting performance was Sunday night, when he shattered Johnny Unitas' 52-year-old record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, the new mark might not last nearly as long as the old one. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is only 11 games behind Brees, having thrown a touchdown pass in 37 straight games. The last time Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass was in the regular-season finale of the 2009 season, Jan. 3, 2010, at Houston, in the game New England wide receiver Wes Welker blew out his knee. So the celebration that New Orleans launched Sunday night for Brees could be coming to Foxborough, Mass., in the coming seasons -- except whereas Joe Unitas attended the game to honor Brees, Brees' 3-year-old son, Baylen, would be unlikely to attend Brady's record-setting game.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Steven SenneThe Broncos are 2-3 with Peyton Manning at quarterback, but two of the losses came against the NFL's only remaining unbeaten teams.

5. Is Denver better off? During a presidential debate on Oct. 28, 1980, almost 32 years ago, Ronald Reagan asked voters to consider whether their lives had improved during Jimmy Carter's administration. That night, Reagan said: "Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?'" A similarly fair question can be asked of the Broncos: At 2-3 with Peyton Manning at quarterback, are they better off than they were a year ago when they were 1-4 and debating making the change from Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow? As Denver prepares to play Monday night at San Diego, certain things have become obvious. For starters, Denver's roster still is outclassed against the top teams in the league. The Broncos are good enough to overpower teams such as Oakland but shaky enough to get outplayed against teams such as New England. And so far, few if any teams have had a schedule more daunting than Denver's. The Broncos beat Pittsburgh and Oakland but lost at Atlanta, against Houston and at New England. After Monday night's game, Denver's schedule gets friendlier, and then it will be more appropriate to ask if the Broncos are better off than they were a year ago.

6. Rising in the West: For a long time, the NFC West was considered the worst. No longer. Through Week 5, it's the only division with all of its teams above .500. It's the first time ever that all four NFC West teams have been above .500 after five games. The NFC North is strong and competitive, the NFC East always is tough, and the AFC North always is challenging. But from top to bottom, there might not be a tougher division, with better defenses, than the one that features San Francisco, Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis. Those teams have a combined 14-6 record, the tops of any NFL division. The NFC North (11-8) and NFC East (10-9) are the only other divisions with a combined record above .500. Maybe the West's most glaring weakness is with one of its 4-1 teams: the Cardinals' offensive line has surrendered 17 sacks the past two games.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Powell
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireWilliam Powell, Arizona's leading rusher in the preseason, moved to the top of the Cardinals' running back depth chart because of injuries.

7. Playing the next Card: Even with Arizona running back Ryan Williams suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, there are those around the league who believe the Cardinals' running game actually could improve. The Cardinals will turn to undrafted free agent running back William Powell, who led the NFL in rushing during the preseason with 249 yards on 42 carries and had three touchdowns. There were whispers in the Cardinals' organization that Powell might have been the team's most impressive and well-rounded back, but Arizona had so much invested in the talented tandem of Beanie Wells and Williams. Well, each has been lost to injury and Powell will get his opportunity. Many of the Cardinals' players believe Powell is going to stand out the way he did this past summer, with his first chance coming Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

8. Pack's run problems: Losing Cedric Benson to a Lisfranc foot injury is one problem for a Green Bay running game already experiencing its fair share of them. Green Bay has gone an NFL-long 32 regular-season games dating back to Week 5 of the 2010 season without a 100-yard rusher. The last Packers running back to rush for over 100 yards in a game was Brandon Jackson, who now backs up Trent Richardson in Cleveland. Since then, every other NFL team has had at least three games with a player rushing for 100 yards. With Benson shelved, it will be up to players such as Alex Green, Brandon Saine and James Starks to try to break the 100-yard drought.

[+] EnlargeDennis Allen
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyDennis Allen will try to lead the Raiders to their first win in the week after their bye in a decade.

9. Raiders bad after byes: It's a new season with new faces and a new atmosphere surrounding the Raiders organization, but the scars still run deep. No organization has struggled more to bounce back from bye weeks, which normally are rejuvenating, than the Raiders. In each of the past nine seasons, the Raiders have lost their first game back after the bye. Coming off this season's bye, the Raiders head to Atlanta to play the unbeaten Falcons. Even though Oakland hired the right general manager in Reggie McKenzie and right head coach in Dennis Allen, it will take time for the Raiders to right their ways.

10. Just your average Boys: For all the bravado, for all the bluster, for all the buildup of Sunday's game at Baltimore, the Dallas Cowboys are the epitome of average. They're 2-2 this season, 13-13 in their past 26 games and 122-122 since the start of the 1997 season. Since then, the only place the Cowboys haven't been exceedingly average is the postseason, where they have compiled a record of 1-6.

The Schef's specialties

Game of the week: New York Giants at San Francisco -- Rematch of last season's classic NFC Championship Game.

Player of the week: 49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams -- The player many blamed for San Francisco's postseason loss to the Giants has a chance for redemption, and the 49ers would like him to get it.

Upset of the week: Cleveland over Cincinnati -- The Browns get back suspended cornerback Joe Haden, as well as a chance to get their first win of the season.